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Treating the whole person means viewing diseases like cancer in the larger context of the whole body. Traditional cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation therapy can wreak havoc on a patient’s body and immune system. The Wholeness & Cancer Immunotherapy Research Program seeks to better understand:
- The immune system’s capabilities in cancer prevention, its shortcomings in the presence of cancer and its role during and after cancer treatment
- How immunotherapy can modify and utilize the immune system to provide novel cancer treatments and cures, as well as fewer, less disruptive side effects
Through this research, our primary goal is to improve quality of life and survival outcomes for cancer patients in our community and around the world.
The Immune System’s Role in Cancer
Our immune system protects the entire body, recognizing and targeting an astronomical number of threats. The immune system doesn’t just eliminate foreign pathogens, though — it also removes what can often be a far larger threat: our own damaged cells.
Far more often than we’re aware of, our immune system eliminates cells with genetic mutations that could lead to cancer. Very, very rarely, though, something goes wrong and the immune system is unable to deal with a mutated cell. Eventually, that cell can divide and grow into a tumor.
Because of the immune system’s potential, immunotherapy may be the most plausible treatment in which to pursue cures for cancers with immune responses. However, there’s still a lot of work to do to identify usable immune responses and to make treatments more consistent for all patients. We believe research in these areas shows promise to unlock the potential of our own bodies to safely and fully eradicate cancers.
Immunotherapy’s Role in Wholeness
The goal of immunotherapy is to protect, stimulate and retrain the immune system when it misses a threat. Immunotherapy can give a patient’s immune system the tools it’s missing to eradicate a certain cancer it can’t even currently recognize. In this way, immunotherapy gives the body back its normal functions, making a patient whole again.
Immunotherapy can have tremendous benefit to a patient’s health and wholeness:
- Using the immune system’s natural ability to eradicate problem cells means that we can rely less on more damaging therapies. Avoiding or reducing the use of chemotherapy, radiation therapy and even surgery means patients feel better sooner.
- Under the effects of immunotherapy, the immune system may be far better at eradicating all traces of certain cancers than traditional therapies. In these cases, cancer recurrence may be dramatically reduced.
- While immunotherapy can come with its own set of side effects, they’re very often far less disruptive for patients for far shorter periods of time.
- Immunotherapy shows promise in longer-lived positive responses, meaning fewer treatment appointments. For example, a patient may come in for chemotherapy every three weeks (and deal with painful side effects each time). With immunotherapy, that same patient may need only one round of a potentially more effective treatment (with less painful side effects).
Wholeness Beyond Cancer
Loma Linda University Health’s motto, “To make man whole,” guides us to the conclusion that treating a patient’s cancer isn’t enough. Instead, we aim to provide care that takes into account the inevitable life changes that come with cancer.
Cancer survivors are left with physical and emotional scars that can prevent them returning to a normal life for years. Damage to a patient’s mental health and immune system is extremely common during regular cancer treatment. Our cancer researchers are interested in reducing, healing or preventing this damage.
Health, Wholeness and Immune Function
It’s now well known that the immune system is affected by many factors of overall health and wholeness. We will continue research into several of these factors and how we can better utilize them to the benefit of patients:
- Diet - There’s relatively little data available on exactly how diet affects the immune system. What can be said for sure, though, is the effects of a poor diet (including increased carcinogenesis) may put unnecessary stress on the immune system. A healthy diet, including foods rich in beneficial compounds like antioxidants, helps avoid these unnecessary stressors.
- Stress - Both psychological and physical stress have been shown to decrease the function of the immune system. A simple example is the observed increase in likelihood to catch a cold while sleep deprived. Seeking activities that improve physical, mental and spiritual health can be key to reducing stress in our lives.
- Exercise - Perhaps one of the most undervalued factors in immune health is exercise. Research has shown that the amount and function of immune cells can be greatly improved with a simple exercise routine. The prevalence of a sedentary lifestyle in the U.S. may be exposing more patients to greater risk of cancer.
- Lifestyle choices - Drug, alcohol and tobacco use may all directly affect the immune system’s ability to function properly and contribute to cancer risk. Reducing or eliminating these can not only prevent certain cancers, but improve quality of life and survival outcomes before, during and after treatment.
- Air quality - Similar to diet, we’re not sure if poor air quality has a direct effect on the immune system. Sources of air pollution can, however, cause both cancers and other conditions like tuberculosis. Having to fend off these conditions more often than normal may stress the immune system. Unfortunately, living with poor air quality is often largely out of our control — especially for those living in poverty.
Improving these areas can allow a patient’s immune system to prevent and fight diseases like cancer, as well as heal after treatment. In turn, a functioning immune system that protects the patient from disease allows them to stay focused on maintaining health and wholeness.
Further, improving these health factors has already been shown to reduce the harmful effects of chemotherapy and radiation. Improving health factors may result in a double benefit for immunotherapy, both reducing side effects and increasing the base effectiveness of the immune system.